NEW KINGDOM (1539 to 1075 B.C.)

Amenhotep III and Sobek
The New Kingdom was the golden age of Egypt and the era of the great pharaohs of Egypt. Culture and the arts blossomed, great temples and colossal monuments were raised, great works of art were created, prosperity reigned. The New Kingdom capital was at Thebes (present-day Luxor), where the great temples of Karnak and Luxor were built and the pharaohs were buried in the Valley of the Kings.

The New Kingdom began in 1539 B.C. after the Hyksos---foreign invaders---were expelled from Lower Egypt and lasted to the death of Ramses IX around 1050 B.C. It embraced the 18th, 19th and 20th Dynasties, with 32 pharaohs. During this time Egypt was a superpower in the Middle East and had a populations of 1 million to 1.5 million. The pharaohs, for the most part, resided in Memphis (near Cairo) and visited Thebes---which was primarily a religious center---to perform rituals.

During the New Kingdom, the Egyptian empire extended southward to the land of Punt (Somalia) and the 5th Cataract near present-day Khartoum, Sudan, and eastward across the Middle East past Palestine and Syria to the Euphrates River of Mesopotamia. The powerful Hittites and Mitanni in the north at various times were both enemies and allies. Assyria and Babylon sent tributes.

Famed Egyptologist Zahi Hawass told Smithsonian magazine, “This period was like a fantastic play with magnificent actors and actresses. Look at the beautiful Nefertiti and her six daughters. King Tut married one of them. Look at her husband, the heretic monarch Akhenaten; his domineering father, Amenhotep III and his powerful mother Queen Tyre. Look at the people around them, Maya, the treasurer; Ay the power behind the throne; and Horemheb, the ruthless general.”

New Kingdom Pharaohs

Dynasty 18: Ahmose, Amenhotep, Thutmose I, Thutmose II, Queen Hatshepsut, Thutmose III, Amenhotep II, Thutmose IV, Amenhotep III, Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV), Smenkhkare, Queen Anketkheprure, Tutankhamun, Aye, Horemheb

Dynasty 19: Ramses I, Seti I, Ramses II (Ramses the Great), Merneptah, Seti II/Amenmesse, Siptah, Queen Tawosret

Dynasty 20: Sethnakhta, Ramses III, Ramses IV, Ramses V, Ramses VI, Ramses VII, Ramses VIII, Ramses IX, Ramses X, Ramses XI


Luxor (310 miles south of Cairo) is an Arab name that means "City of Palaces." Located on a sweeping bend in the Nile, it boasts some of most famous temples in Egypt and is the second largest draw in Egypt after Cairo and the Pyramids, Luxor is home to the greatest concentration of ancient monuments in Egypt: the magnificent temples of Karnak, Luxor and Hatshepsut , the Valley of the Kings, the Valley of the Queens, the tomb of Tutankhamen, and the Colossi of Memnon, the giant broken statues of Ramses the Great that inspired Shelley's poem Ozymandias .

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Amenhote Luxor Temple
In post -Egyptian ancient times, Luxor was called Thebes, a Greek which means "the one hundred gated city." From 2,100 to 750 B.C., Thebes was the religious capital of Pharonic Egypt and the center of Egyptian power. It embraced the area occupied by Karnak and Luxor. The priests who worked out of the temples became so powerful they were regarded as a threat to the pharaoh.

Thebes emerged as the main power center of Egypt at the dawn of the Middle Kingdom (2125 to 1520 B.C.) and became the capital of Egypt after the Hyksos were kicked out of Egypt. During the New Kingdom (1539 to 1075 B.C.) it was the center of Egypt. The pharaohs resided here and perhaps 1 million people lived in the area. The largest and most spectacular building were built during the reigns of Amenhotep III and Ramses II in the 14th and 13th century B.C. By Greco-Roman times it was already major tourist attraction.

The East Bank of the Nile in Luxor is where the pharaoh lived, temples were built and the city that served the pharaoh grew up. The West Bank of the Nile in Luxor is where many New Kingdom pharaohs, their wives, their children, important priest and nobles, and even ordinary workers were placed in tombs that prepared for their journey to next world. There are a few temples and monuments here. Most of them are associated with dead.

Ahmose and Thutmose I

Thutmose I_mummy
Ahmose (1550-1525 B.C.) is something of a hero in ancient Egyptian history. He founded the 18th dynasty and reunited Egypt after a long period of foreign domination. He defeated the Hyksos and drove them from Egypt, and reunified Egypt and set the stage for expansion into Africa and the Middle East.

Ahmose built a number of monuments in Abydos, including the last royal pyramid and a structure with scenes from Ahmose’s battle victories. He is believed to have been the first Pharaoh to be buried in the Valley of the Kings, launching a tradition that would endure for four centuries.

When Ahmose’s son, Amenhotep, failed to produce a son, a military leader named Thutmose I was installed as Pharaoh because he was considered strong and had married a princess.Thutmose I was considered a charismatic leader and effective and cruel military campaigner. He once sailed into Thebes with the naked body of a rebellious Nubian chieftain dangling from the prow of his ship.

Thutmose III

Thutmose III is regarded was as the Napoleon of Egypt. Only 5 foot 3, he mounted at least 14 military campaigns, some of which he personally led, and won them all if historical records are to be believed . He helped the Egyptian empire reach the height of its power and size. His military campaigns expanded the borders of Egypt into Syria, Palestine and Nubia. During the last ten years of his reign Egypt was peaceful and prosperous.

Thutmose III assumed power after his stepmother Queen Hatshepsut died in 1458. He ruthlessly defaced her images and raised many monuments of himself. Otherwise he was regarded as a compassionate warrior who did not enslave enemy soldiers nor massacre civilians. He kept foreign princes obedient by holding their sons hostage in gilded cages and introduced chicken to ancient Egypt.

Thutmose III’s Military Campaigns

Thutmose III's head
In his 19-year rule Thutmose III led military campaigns at a rate of almost one a year, including a victory over the Canaanites at Megiddo in present-day Israel. There are lengthy descriptions of his battles on the rock walls of Karnak. They include tales of soldiers hiding in baskets delivered to enemy cities and boats hauled 250 miles overland for a surprise attack. In the releifs Thutmose himself is depicted a sphinx trampling Nubians and a warrior smiting an Asiatic lion.

One of Thutmose’s greatest military victory occurred in Joppa (present-day Jaffa, Israel) in 1450 B.C. According to a rare papyrus text, the Egyptians secured victory after employing Trojan-horse-like deception. After the city failed to fall during a siege, the commanding general Djehuty sent baskets to the city that were said to contain plundered goods. At night Egyptian soldiers emerged from the baskets and opened the city gates.

Thutmose III drive towards the Euphrates claimed new lands for Egypt and brought in tributes. Wall paintings from the period show Babylonians, Syrians, Nubians and Canaanites offering presents to the pharaoh and bowing in subservient positions. The military campaign is also blamed for triggering a series of conflicts that would ultimately would deal the Egyptians a costly defeat at the hands of the Assyrians.

Thutmose IV

According to to one story, about 1400 B.C., when Thutmose IV was a prince he fell asleep under the Sphinx's chin and had a dream that someday he would free the statue from the sand. When he became Pharaoh he covered the Sphinx with limestone blocks, added the masonry forelegs and painted it yellow, blue and red. He placed a statue of his father---and a red granite stela with the story of his dream---on the Sphinx's chest. In the time of Thutmose IV the Sphinx was as ancient as Chatres cathedral is to us today. Ramses the Great later reworked the statue, added two more stelae and scratched in his name (and probably erased the name of Thumose's father).

Thutmose IV expelled Mesopotamian invaders known as Mitanni. He may have killed his brother to claim the throne.

Amenhotep III

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Amenhotep III Colossal
Amenhotep III(1390-1353 B.C. ) ruled for 38 years during a period of relative peace and prosperity . He built the Colossi of Memnon and the Mortuary of Amenhotep III and spent a lot of time hunting. One commemorative scarab said he killed “102 fearful lions” during the first 11 years of his rule. [Source: Andrew Lawler, Smithsonian magazine, November 2007]

Amenhotep III controlled a rich empire stretching 1,200 miles from the Euphrates in the north to the Fourth Cataract of the Nile in the south. Zahi Hawass wrote in National Geographic, “Along with his powerful queen Tiye, he worshipped the gods of his ancestors, above all Amun, while his people prosper and vast wealth flows into the royal coffers from Egypt's foreign holdings.”[Source: Zahi Hawass, National Geographic, September 2010]

Amenhotep III came to the throne as a teenager after the death of his warrior father Thutmose IV. He chose to spend much of his time in Thebes (Luxor) rather than Memphis, where most of the other pharaohs spent their time . After quelling an uprising in Nubia he chopped off the arms of 312 enemies but was more restrained and diplomatic during most of his rule. His principal wife Tiye by various accounts was a Nubian, a commoner or from a noble Egyptian family. His harem included women from rival powers such as Babylon and Mitanni. Queen Tiye (1390-1349) was deeply involved in politics. She abdicated when the king died and made a living as a goddess.

Amenhotep III went through great lengths to maintain peace. He wrote conciliatory letters to Mesopotamian leaders and established trade relations throughout the Mediterranean, Western Asia and Africa. The main resource that Egypt had to trade was gold. An envious Assyrian king wrote, “Gold in your country is dirt: one simply gathers it up.” With the wealth that his kingdom accumulated Amenhotep III built temples from the Nile Delta to Nubia 1,200 kilometers to the south. He expanded the temples at Karnak and Luxor and built a great mortuary temple for himself. Art and sculpture with an eye for detail and craft were produced.

Some have said that Amenhotep III was the source of Akhenaten’s monotheism. He named his royal boat and a Thebean palace Aten (the word that Akhenaten would use for his single god) and in some inscription mentioned Aten and no other gods. However Amenhotep III principal object of worship was Amun-Ra a combination of the main Thebean god and the sun god. He claimed that Amun disguised as his father entered Amenhotep III’s mother’s bedchamber before his birth and thus was his father, asserting that he was the most divine Pharaoh that had ever existed.

Amenhotep III ruled Egypt from 1391 to 1353 B.C. He ruled an Egypt that stretched from the Nile Delta all the way southward to what is now known as the Sudan. Except for a brief and triumphant campaign in Nubia in his teens, when he was said to have come down on his enemies like a falcon upon its prey, he never went to war, nor saw any reason to do so. In governmental terms, his situation was ideal. His was an Egypt in which harvests were superabundant and nobody ever went hungry. Virtually limitless supplies of gold from Nubia relieved him of all financial problems. The word "deficit" was never heard. Harbor patrols and construction work were the main activities of his large standing army. Foreign policy was a matter of unhurrying diplomacy and well-crafted matrimonial moves. Amenhotep III knew how to delegate, and he was surrounded by brilliant, dedicated and incorruptible professionals who gave the notion of bureaucracy a shine that it has long since lost. Thor, the god of writing, was held in honor at his court, the activities of which are documented to a quite exceptional degree. In his 30's, Amenhotep III staged a series of ritual banquets on a more than Rabelaisian scale. (To gnaw at a bone as long as one's arm was not thought to be anything unusual.) But the life style that we find recorded in the Cleveland show is primarily one in which hard work, probity and inspired statecraft go hand in hand with an eye to the universality of the king who was also a god.

Art Under Amenhotep III

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Amenhotep III relief
In the early 1990s the the Cleveland Museum of Art hosted an exhibition called "Egypt's Dazzling Sun: Amenhotep III and His World." On the show John, “The show cannot of course include the enormous building projects on which Amenhotep III gave so much of his time. (For that matter, nobody today can see them, because his immediate successors took a delight in destroying or disfiguring them.) But we remember portraits in stone of human beings of every kind and station. We also remember lions, rams, sphinxes and scribes. With them come reliefs, household objects and spectacular pieces of jewelry. This was a moment in Egyptian history when all went well. [Source: John Russell, New York Times, July 12, 1992]

His interests and his character would seem to have been formed by the time that he came to the throne as a mere boy. For instance, there is in the present show a sunken relief that shows him, at around 12 or 14, in the act of opening new limestone quarries at Tura, not far from Cairo. It was in Tura that the facing stones for the great pyramids in Giza and Sakkara had been quarried. Amenhotep III in later life was to be a great connoisseur of Egyptian stones, hard and soft, in all their variety. Nor did anyone ever put those stones to more eloquent use. So there is something as apt as it is touching about the gesture of the slender and limber boy king as he swings his left arm across his body to sprinkle the ritual incense.

Later statues of the king were sometimes as much as 25 feet high. A colossal head of Amenhotep III, more than seven feet high, sits in the museum in Luxor. Are we awed by the head? Of course we are, and not least by the gleaming actuality with which a likeness of living flesh has been wrested from one of the hardest and least amenable of all stones. To that end, a whole team of master craftsmen contributed.

Viewers attuned to the gaudy attractions of the Tutankhamen tomb may find the art produced under Amenhotep III lacking in panache. Others, bemused by the brutish and dictatorial bearing of the art and the architecture that they associate with Ramses II, who ruled roughly a century later, may find too much tenderness in the art of Amenhotep III.

Colossi of Memnon

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Colossi of Memnon
Colossi of Memnon (next to the road between the ferry and the ticket office) consists of two seated statues of Amenhotep III and are named after Memnon, a Greek hero whose mother, the Dawn Goddess, shed tears of dew every morning after his death in the Trojan War. The badly damaged statues were once 70 feet high and cut from a single piece of quartzite stone. Around them are sugar cane fields.

Originally built for the vast mortuary temple of Amenhotep III (1441-1375 B.C.) of the Eighteenth Dynasty the statutes were intended to guard the gates of his temple. Ancient Greek travelers named the northern statue "Memnon." It became known in classical literature as "the singing Memnon" because at sunrise it would emit strange sounds. Some tourists heard human voices, others thought they heard harp strings. In the Greek-era Guide to Greece a traveler named Pausanias wrote they sounded “very like the twang of a broken lyre-string or a broken harp-string.” Word spread and the colossi became the one of the ancient world’s greatest tourist attractions.

The sound was produced by a crack created by an earthquake in 27 B.C. Historian Daniel Boorstin wrote: “The skeptical Greek geographer Strabo (63 B.C.-A.D. 24) suspected a machine installed by the temple priests. When Hadrian and his wife, Sabina, arrived in A.D. 130, the singing Memnon remained silent on their first morning. But it spoke up the next day and inspired their court poetess to compose a paean to both Memnon and the emperor. Emperor Septimius Severus in A.D. 202 was not so fortunate. When the statue repeatedly refused to speak to him, he tried to conciliate it by repairing its cracks. Never again was the statue heard to sing."

The colossi now stands 65 feet tall and are all that remains of the once huge Amenhotep Mortuary Temple. It was once thought they were all that was left of a huge collection of statues but recent excavations have revealed that a large number of statues---including 72 of the lion-head goddess Sekhmet and two huge statues of Amenhotep III, each flanked by a smaller one of Queen Tye and various sacred animals such as an alabaster hippopotamus---lie underground or have been excavated and placed in storerooms. There used to be a total of 730 statues here: one for every day and night in the year.

Mortuary of Amenhotep III

Mortuary of Amenhotep III (excavation at the Colossi of Memnon) was once the largest and most impressive temple complex in the world. Known as “The House of Millions of Years,” it embraced gates, colonnades, courts filed with reliefs and inscriptions, and halls with columns more than 15 meters high. In its day it was filled with colorful royal banners hanging from cedar poles on red granite pedestals. Amenhotep III called the complex “a fortress of eternity” and said it was built “out of good white sandstone---worked with gold throughout. Its floors were purified with silver, all of its doorways were of electrum”---an alloy of gold and silver. Over the centuries, though, earthquakes, floods and looting, much of it by 19th century Europeans, have reduced the temple to buried ruins.

Larger than Vatican City and more vast than the massive Karnak and Luxor temples, the Mortuary Temple of Amenhotep III was the length of seven football fields and stretched from the colossi to sacred altars pointing towards the Valley of the Kings. During Amenhotep III’s rule the Nile flowed just a few hundred meters away from the temple. The Colossi of Memnon once stood in front of it. The massive front gate, or pylon, was once brightly painted in blues, red,, greens, yellows and whites.

The Mortuary Temple of Amenhotep III has been excavated since 1999 by a team led by Baghdad-born, Armenian archeologist Hourig Sourouzian. The is some sense of urgency to the project as archeologists are worried about salty runoff and irrigation water groundwater and seepage from the Nile damaging the sculptures that are underground. The restoration plan calls for much of the temples to be reconstructed but that will take many years---even decades---to complete. Just piecing statues and columns back together take a lot of time. Sections are being completed and opened bit by bit.

Amenhotep III’s Private Life Expressed in Art

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Queen Tiye,
wife of Amenhotep
Russell wrote in the New York Times that Amenhotep III’s art “was an art that excelled as much in intimacy as in the grand public gesture. His favorite wife, Queen Tiy, was a paragon of good looks who came from more or less nowhere, in social terms, but was in every other way her husband's equal. In time, she ranked with him not only as a ruler but also as a goddess, and her husband built a temple to her in northern Sudan. [Source: John Russell, New York Times, July 12, 1992]

The portraits of Queen the portraits of her daughters, have an immediacy and a freedom from formula that seem to have disconcerted earlier generations and contributed to the fact that the art of Amenhotep III and his world has not always been highly esteemed. As recently as 1956, two German art historians castigated Amenhotep III for what they called "his emphasis on his private life, unparalleled in earlier times." In their view, he was "diverted from his highest political duty" by "an excessive desire to build and an ever-increasing search to free his personality."

For this critic, at any rate, few rulers have been more faithful to their "highest political duty" than Amenhotep III. As for the emphasis on his private life, it is one of the most endearing features of the Cleveland show -- and not least in the reconstruction of the royal bedroom, with its wealth of household objects and apparatus of discreet luxury.

It is the virtue of the period (from our point of view) that it wrought very small marvels as well as huge ones. The perfume bottles, the spoons, the combs, the tubes for eye paint, the matrimonial ointment flask (inscribed to both spouses, by name), the ear studs, the bracelets, the cabochon finger ring, the three-handled perfume jar, the painted wooden box with its gabled lid -- all combine as much to amuse as to seduce.

There are also one-of-a-kind pieces like the wonderfully sprightly little figure of a European spoonbill that came from the royal palace in Thebes. To the connoisseur of miniaturization I commend above all the bright yellow ceramic figure of a swimming duck that measures no more than a fraction of an inch in any direction and is yet most vividly alive. But it is in the portrayal of the human figure -- whether prince or princess, civil servant or seated scribe -- that this art is consistently sublime. It is not as the victims of established formula that these people confront us, but as free-spirited individuals.

End of New Kingdom

The New Kingdom went into a decline after Ramses II's death. Ramses was succeeded by Merenptah, his 60-year-old 13th son. He was a mediocre pharaoh.

By the time Ramses III came to power, the kingdom was in disarray and was beginning to come apart. Harem ladies attempted to assassinate Ramses III around 1200 B.C. but failed. Ramses V died of small pox in 1151 B.C. Pockmarks are clearly visible on his unwrapped mummy.

Amenhotep I

After the chaotic reign of Ramses XI (1115-1086 B.C. ) the long-unified Egyptian state broke apart. The burials at the Valley of the Kings ended abruptly following his death.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum, The Egyptian Museum in Cairo

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2012

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